As one outstanding Stanford recruiting class exits and leaves behind a legacy as the most successful class in program history, another takes center stage with an opportunity to build on the already lofty standard set by its predecessors.
Stanford's 2009 class set an especially high standard. By the time linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro and running back Tyler Gaffney finished, the Cardinal had played in four consecutive BCS bowls and won two Pac-12 championships, effectively cementing their place as one of the conference's best classes in recent history.
Head coach David Shaw led Stanford to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl in his first season as head coach. Then for an encore, he landed what he called "one of the best classes in the history of the school," per The Stanford Daily's Jack Blanchat.
Based on rankings from recruiting services such as 247Sports.com, which has tracked signing classes for a little more than a decade, the 2012 group is Stanford's best in that time period.
"It’s not just about the rankings or the stars, it's about the quality of the individuals that we added to our team," Shaw said on national signing day 2012, per Blanchat's article.
Of course, the true impact of a recruiting class can be most accurately measured after it's performed, and the departure of the holdovers from the 2009 class leaves voids the 2012 signees must fill. Add early entries in offensive guard David Yankey and safety Ed Reynolds, and the Cardinal return just 11 starters. Among Pac-12 teams, only Arizona State lost more.
The 2014 season is the third the members of the 2012 signing class will have been in Shaw's program. Whether juniors or redshirt sophomores, the high turnover means their time to lead Stanford and continue the Cardinal's recent winning tradition is now.
Some from the stellar 2012 class have already made an impact. Andrus Peat was an All-Conference selection and Sports Illustrated All-American nominee. Peat was a 5-star prospect coming out of Tempe (Ariz.) Corona Del Sol, and he has certainly lived up to his billing. Along with fellow 5-star Kyle Murphy, Stanford's recent tradition for outstanding offensive line play should continue.
The difference next season could be a move back to an offense that is heavier on the pass.
Since Andrew Luck left to become the NFL draft's No. 1 overall pick, Shaw overwhelmingly favored the run, going to the ground 150 more times than through the air in 2012—and 273 more this past season.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan became the starter midway through 2012 and held the job throughout 2013. That experience, coupled with the presence of a few noteworthy 2012 recruits on a deep and talented wide receivers corps, should result in more passing.
Two receivers from the 2012 class factor prominently into the position's depth. Shaw routinely sang the praises of wide receiver Michael Rector during the 2013 season, citing both his blocking ability as well as his pass-catching. He'll play an integral role alongside fellow 2012 signee Kodi Whitfield.
You may remember Whitfield for making arguably the most spectacular catch of the 2013, hauling in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Hogan in the Cardinal's win over UCLA.
The Cardinal won't exactly emulate an Air Raid offense, however, and the process of replacing Gaffney starts with 2012 recruit Barry Sanders Jr. The Hall of Famer's son offered fans a sample of his repertoire in Stanford's win over Washington State in September.
Stanford's offense is well-stocked, thanks to the 2012 signing class. Replacing everything Stanford loses on defense may prove more difficult, and the unit's progression under first-year coordinator Lance Anderson this offseason will make or break the Cardinal's bid for a Pac-12 three-peat.
Defensive back Alex Carter was a stalwart of this past season's No. 10-ranked scoring defense, with 59 tackles and a team-high eight passes defended, but the unit's collective depth and experience made getting meaningful game experience difficult for other players.
Defensive back Zach Hoffpauir made a crucial fourth-down stop in Stanford's Pac-12 Championship Game win over Arizona State that effectively ended any hope the Sun Devils had of mounting a comeback. By and large, however, the 2012 class' defensive crop is untested.
The experience gained practicing alongside one of the nation's best defenses for the last two seasons should help the new Cardinal starters get up to speed quickly.
The 2012 class can truly leave its mark not by simply continuing what its predecessors accomplished, but building on it. For all its success in the last half-decade, Stanford has another phase it has yet to reach: competing for a national championship.
Stanford came within two single-point decisions of playing for a national championship in each of the last two seasons. Making those few plays necessary to turn those defeats into victories is the difference between a berth in the College Football Playoff and another near-miss.
Taking that next step would surely validate the praise given to the 2012 class when it signed with Stanford two years ago.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting information obtained via 247Sports.com.